Friday, October 24, 2008

A New Online Foodie Book Club: Cook the Books

Over on my food blog, The Crispy Cook, I've been joined by two other blogger buddies, Johanna of Food Junkie and Deb of Kahakai Kitchen where we decided to do something fun to share our mutual love for reading and cooking. We have started a new bimonthly foodie book club, Cook the Books, in which we will highlight a book to read, discuss, and then cook from. Our first book pick is "La Cucina", by Lily Prior, where the setting is Sicily and Palermo and features lots of mouthwatering traditional Sicilian cooking. Our host trio is pleased to unveil our new Cook the Books blog designed by the multi-talented Johanna as our new home. Check back there for literary discussion, Sicilian cooking ideas, and maybe some input from the author herself!

December 15, 2008 is the deadline to read the book, cook up something inspired by it in your own cucina and blog about it. After that time, I will post a roundup of the delicious entries and we will poll participants for a winning entry. The Cook the Books champion will receive a cool Cook the Books badge to wear proudly on his or her blog. We will also be asking for your suggestions for the next bunch of book selections, whether they are foodie novels or non-fiction gastronomic memoirs, culinary history or travelogues. We would like to plan a reading list for 2009 so participants can order, beg, or borrow Cook the Books book selections well ahead of time.

To whet your appetite for "La Cucina" here's a link to author Lily Prior's website where you can read more about this and other titles, and hear Ms. Prior read a erotic, yet funny passage from the novel (p. 134 in my hardcover copy) with her delightful English accent. I have been in contact with our Cook the Books author to let her know about our new book club and she has graciously offered to answer any questions we may have, so feel free to hop over to our new Cook the Books headquarters to post a comment or question.

Now, start Cooking the Books!

Friday, October 10, 2008

Book Review: The Storyteller by Mario Vargas Llosa

The fifth part of my journey on the Orbis Terrarum Reading Challenge (nine books by nine authors from nine different countries) took me to 1950s Peru with Mario Vargas Llosa's "The Storyteller" (NY: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1989). The book tells the tale of two college friends, one unnamed narrator and his red-haired Jewish buddy Saul, alias "Las Mascarita" (Mask Face), because of the huge port-wine birthmark that obscures half his face. The pair have many philosophical conversations during their university years, though always given ultimate punctuation with Saul's jovial tone and references to his friend as "pal", "little brother", or "old man".

Their friendship erodes as graduation nears and the narrator seeks out a scholarship for studies abroad while Saul is seen less and less on campus and is rumored to be either somewhere in the jungles of eastern Peru living among the Machiguenga people or has emigrated to Israel. Our narrator graduates and is hired to work with a field team from the Institute of Linguistics and later, as a producer of television documentaries. In both jobs he tries to contact Saul to get his take on Machiguenga culture, but he never hears from him again. There is only a haunting image from the first chapter of the book, which has the narrator viewing photographs at a Florentine art gallery and recognizing Saul as a tribal storyteller among the Machiguengas.

The book juxtaposes chapters in the narrator's voice with chapters about Peruvian Indian mythology and this makes for rich reading. A chapter in which Saul and the narrator discuss the influence of missionaries and Western business interests on traditional Machiguenga culture is followed by a folk tale about the elements, animals and the spirit world. Is this the voice of a Machiguenga storyteller? Or of Saul? I didn't know, but enjoyed the weaving in and out of these two viewpoints and the thought-provoking dialogues between the two "pals".

"The Storyteller" is not light reading, but was an enjoyable excursion into another time and place and brought up many interesting sideline discussions about the definition of "civilization", how anthropologists can properly study other cultures, and how outsiders or minorities fit into their larger society. I will be seeking out other novels by Llosa and have already squirreled away "Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter" for my winter reading pile.

Recommended for anyone interested in Peruvian culture and history, mythology mavens and armchair travelers.